A Special Announcement

I am pleased to announce that immediately prior to my recent departure for China I received notification that one of the short stories I wrote for “23” and Other Stories of Faith has been accepted for publication in the September issue of the Lutheran Witness (the magazine periodical of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod).  The story is called “Herb and Vi” and was originally posted on this blog back in March.  I am excited that thousands more will soon be blessed by the wonderful story of this humble couple’s faith and trust in God!  Please share this good news with others!

Here, again, is the story of Herb and Vi” (posted in two parts)

Herb and Vi

Vi was “the older woman,” born in 1919, 2 years and 3 months before her beloved Herb. She never let him forget it and he’d always remind her.  She left her childhood home of Pleasant Dale, Nebraska at the age of 22 for San Diego, California to work at Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation.  Like thousands of other women during World War Two, Vi served her nation as a “Rosy the Riveter” working in the defense industry building B-24 Liberator bombers and PBY Catalina flying boats.

Like Vi, Herb was a Lutheran.  As a matter of fact, the Theiss family were pioneer Lutherans in California, having found their way from the mid-west center of Lutheranism to establish congregations and schools in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Herb’s dad, a pastor, spent his life serving churches throughout California, eventually leading the family to San Diego.

Herb was in the Army during World War II, serving in the Pacific Theater, obtaining the rank of Master Sergeant.  And, like so many other Lutheran couples after the war, it was at a Walther League young adult event that Herb and Vi met.  It was a love story that would last for over 69 years of marriage.  Growing up in San Diego, where the weather for sports was always perfect, Herb lived and breathed baseball.  One of his proudest accomplishments was as a starter for an American Legion baseball team that played for the national championship in 1938.  But Herb’s greatest feat was hitting a homerun when he married Vi.  She was a baseball nut!

Vi loved the Dodgers.  Herb loved the Angels.  Fortunately their National and American League allegiances allowed for a peaceful coexistence until the day the world shifted on its axis and interleague play was introduced.  In addition to being a pastor, husband, and father, it is important to confess that my next most important self-identifier is that I am a San Francisco Giants baseball fan, almost from birth – the Giants moving from New York to San Francisco two years after I was born.  And so it was perfectly normal for Vi and I to take great joy in picking on each other as participants in the greatest sports rivalry of all time – the Dodgers and Giants.  The three of us often talked about how our days, and even life’s rhythm itself, was impacted by the performance of our teams.  Each day a new game, a time for a fresh start, a field on which the drama played out, and valleys full of the great joys and deep disappointments.

Herb and Vi were pillars at Christ Lutheran Church and School, Costa Mesa, California, the place where I have served as lead pastor since 2006.  For more than 20 years, Herb led a Saturday morning Men’s Bible Study that mentored more men, husbands, and sons in Scripture than most Bible teachers will ever experience.  They were examples of faithful living, no matter the challenges of life’s valleys.  Unlike many in the church, they didn’t step aside as age crept up and life slowed down.  They kept serving the Lord until the time in life when their bodies simply wouldn’t allow them to keep up the pace that had defined them for so long.  The day that Herb handed off the leadership of the Saturday Morning Men’s Bible Study was one of the toughest days of his life.  He yielded simply because, at 93, he could not maintain the quality of his leadership.  While both had various issues of health as they got closer to heaven, it was really old age that led them into life’s final valley.

Please watch for Part 2 later this week!

Authority Has a Bad Reputation

Authority has a bad reputation.

Without question there are many in authority who abuse their positions with others. Media reveals examples in the entertainment industry (#MeToo movement), politics, law enforcement, the classroom, neighborhoods and homes, and even in the church.  Abuse of authority – of any kind – is indefensible.  It’s wrong.

I’m wondering today how we got here and how much of this struggle stems from society’s general rejection of authority.  Wouldn’t we do better if we made the effort to reset our understanding, teach appropriate perspectives, and hold up the many good examples of authority that are out there?  We shortchange ourselves when we “throw the baby out with the bath water.”

I think that our authority problem is rooted in what our culture perceives as truth.  When every person decides what is right and wrong for themselves it is no wonder that we have difficulty agreeing on what to teach our children, how to hold people accountable, and why bad people try to get away with unacceptable behavior.  We are caught up in a decline that is circling the drain.

People of faith know that this isn’t a new issue. The Bible teaches us that embracing a relative truth has been the underlying cause of problems, conflict, and abuse ever since Adam and Eve decided to go their own way in the Garden of Eden – rejecting God’s authority, design, and plan. Carry that decision forward over the course of history and it’s no surprise that we’re a mess today. When we ignore the ultimate authority that God designed for us, people “cast off restraint” (Proverbs 29:18) and go all kinds of crazy. Even a quick, honest reflection will show that the authority we’ve chosen for  our lives isn’t working so well for us.

The old saying is true, “it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.”  That’s why a right understanding of authority needs to be taught in the earliest of our relationships – at home. God says, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.  ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.’”  To ensure that this relationship isn’t abused, God also says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”  (Ephesians 6:1-4)

Our need for a right understanding of authority carries over into the realm of civil government: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.” (Romans 13:1-4)

The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior.”

As I write this, I have just had a conversation with a neighbor who was out for a walk.  True to form, he launched into his favorite topic – his profound dislike for our president.  I tried hard to make my point: Whether we “like” those who lead us or not, there is a reason and benefit for all of us to respect the position of authority and to pray for those who lead us.  Without it we quickly fall apart and anarchy reigns.

What do we do when civil authority is abusive, like we’ve often seen throughout history? When that happens the answer is short and simple: “We must obey God rather than man.” (Acts 4:20)  The Civil Rights Movement under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an example of this and an appropriate challenge of abusive authority.

There is an important “final part.” Our broken world needs to be restored and reconciled.  Without it our hatred and unforgiveness will be the example we set before the next generation and the problem will simply perpetuate; continuing our slide into degenerative behaviors.  This is where Jesus comes in.  He is the one who offers something new and healing.  Because of what He did on the cross – being abused in our place and paying the price for all of our abuses – we have hope for something far greater than the mess we’ve got now. Where we have “cast off restraint,” rejected God’s ultimate truth, and replaced it with our own, we can experience forgiveness and a reset to authority – God’s Lordship in our lives. Where we have broken relationships with others, we can find reconciliation.  Where we live in mistrust of our leaders, we can trade fear for the peace of a God-guided future.

Where do you place your confidence for life, relationships, and authority?  Maybe it’s time for a change!

Respond:  Join me in the conversation – what is your perspective on authority?

Soup Mountain

“Will you lead our retreat?”

The question was asked by a member of our congregation who was working in Shanghai, China.  Since I was already going to be in China at the time it was easy to do – sort of.  I just needed to fly diagonally across the country, from Kunming to Nanjing – the retreat site.  Since I had never been to Nanjing before my answer was quick, “Of course, I’ll come.” What an incredible city!  Nanjing has existed along the Yangtze River for over 6,000 years and served as one of China’s ancient capitals for 500 of those years.

The retreat was for their little house church – a mixture of mature believers, new believers, and seekers.  It would take place at the Tangshan Hot Spring Resort outside of Nanjing. Tanghsan is the ancient word for hot spring, but it literally means, appropriately, “soup mountain.”  The resort advertises that the 122-140 degree water contains calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium and is supposed to heal skin diseases, arthritis, neuralgia and many other ailments.  That’s some kind of soup!

Here’s the really cool part: the resort is smack dab in the middle of the Nanjing PRC Army Base – it was full of soldiers on R&R.

I definitely stuck out like a sore thumb – a 6’3”, 240 lb white guy sitting in the hot spring pools with hundreds of others.  I tried hard not to draw any attention to myself.  That lasted for only a short time until we settled into the “little fish hot spring” pool where thousands of tiny fish swarm you to “remove” the dead skin cells from your feet, legs, arms – and wherever else they can wiggle.  I didn’t last 30 seconds and came flying out of the water with a yell, much to the enjoyment of my fellow bathers.  For the remainder of the time we were there, I was pointed out to those who had missed my embarrassing moment, often with accompanying laughter, a mimicked yell, and hand motions as soldiers described my rocket-like self-extraction from the little fish hot spring pool.  Any thought of blending in while leading a Christian retreat (we did keep our purpose for being there secret) in a hot springs resort, located in the middle of a military base, deep inside China, was gone!

On the last day of the retreat I was blessed to have a significant conversation with one of our retreat participants – a seeker who became a believer as the Spirit created faith in him through the Gospel.  As the conversation concluded, he asked to be baptized.  Right now.  By me.  It made me think of Philip and the Ethiopian official in Acts 8:37 when he said to Philip, “See here is water!  What prevents me from being baptized?”

Well, there was certainly no shortage of water in the hot springs – just privacy.

The solution turned out to be an easy one.  The “villa,” in which we were conducting our retreat, had a small high-fenced private backyard with a waste deep, 12’ diameter pool.  The big water faucet was turned on, hot spring water poured in, and an hour later we were ready to go.

“What prevents me from being baptized?”  “Nothing!”

“I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.”  Cheers, hugs, tears, and photos followed (which I can’t show you in this blog).   What a joy.  In that moment, our Heavenly Father adopted a new brother into the family of God, forgiven, sealed with the Holy Spirit, and the promise of a glorious inheritance.

I’ll always remember my first baptism in China – in a backyard of a private villa, in a hot spring spa, in the middle of a PRC military base, 27 kilometers outside of the 6,000 year old city of Nanjing, and 6,550 miles from home.

Water and the Word are a powerful pair!

Respond:   Got a baptism story to share?  Post it in the reply section!